Lemon basil leaves are small to medium in size, averaging five centimeters in length, and have an elliptical to elongated, oval shape tapering to a distinct point on the non-stem end. The leaves are smooth, flat, and green, containing some veining across the surface with lightly serrated edges. The leaves also grow in pairs on either side of the square, fuzzy stalks, and have a crisp and succulent consistency with a sweet, citrus-forward aroma. Lemon basil has a unique herbal, sweet, and tangy flavor with notes of lemon mixed with anise. In the late summer, the plants also produce lemon-scented, small white flowers that bloom on long, light green bracts.
Lemon basil is available year-round, with a peak season in the summer.
Lemon basil, botanically classified as Ocimum X citriodorum, is a hybrid variety belonging to the Lamiaceae or mint family. The annual plant grows up to 50 centimeters in height and is known for its refreshing and subtly sweet citrus fragrance. Lemon basil is native to Asia, also known as Kemangi in Indonesia, Maenglak in Thailand, and Nasi Ulam in Malaysia, and has remained primarily localized to these regions, used as a fresh, edible garnish. Many Southeast Asian communities harvest the herb straight from wild plants, incorporating the leaves as a flavoring in soups, appetizers, and main dishes. Outside of Asia, Lemon basil is grown as a specialty cultivar in home gardens throughout the United States. The variety is favored as a flavorful addition to edible landscapes, and some farms also grow the cultivar for sale at local farmer’s markets.
Lemon basil is an excellent source of beta-carotene, a pigment that is converted into vitamin A in the body to protect against vision loss. The greens are also a good source of vitamin K to assist in faster wound healing and provide some magnesium, iron, manganese, copper, calcium, and vitamin C. In addition to vitamins and minerals, Lemon basil contains the compounds limonene and citral, contributing to the herb’s citrus-like flavor and supplying some anti-inflammatory properties.
Lemon basil is best suited as a finishing element and can be utilized in both raw and cooked applications. It is important to note that Lemon basil should be added just before plating to maintain the herb’s flavor and aromatic qualities. The leaves can be lightly torn and tossed into green salads, minced into dips and vinaigrettes, or stirred into beverages, including cocktails, iced tea, and lemonade. Lemon basil can also be rubbed over meats to impart a subtle flavoring, mixed into rice, pasta, and noodle bowls, or thinly sliced and served over fresh peaches as a bright appetizer. In addition to fresh applications, Lemon basil can be infused into oils or syrups and incorporated into jams, crumbles, cobblers, ice cream, and puddings. Lemon basil will also add a citrusy, anise flavor to cookies, scones, or other baked goods. In some regions of Southeast Asia, the white flowers are eaten in combination with the leaves, tossed into salads, soups, and slaws. Lemon basil pairs well with aromatics such as ginger, garlic, chives, and mint, coconut milk, meats such as poultry, beef, and turkey, seafood, cheeses such as goat, mozzarella, parmesan, and blue, and vegetables such as zucchini, green beans, and asparagus. Lemon basil is highly perishable, losing flavor after a couple of days, and will keep up to three days when loosely wrapped and stored in the refrigerator. If the leaves are still attached to their stems, they can be placed in a glass of water, covered with a plastic bag, and refrigerated.